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Mandel's start begins new focus for Suns

Hagerstown opens South Atlantic League season tonight at Delmarva

Hagerstown opens South Atlantic League season tonight at Delmarva

April 03, 2008|By BOB PARASILITI

In one 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame, Jeff Mandel represents the end and the beginning, at least for the Hagerstown Suns as we know them, as the Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.

Mandel started the final game of the Suns' painful 2007 season - a 55-81 campaign that ranked Hagerstown 15th out of 16 teams in the South Atlantic League.

Now fast forward to tonight and Mandel will be the opening-day starter when Hagerstown starts anew at 7 p.m. in Salisbury, Md., against the Delmarva Shorebirds.

It's a big deal for Mandel because the start represents so many different things. On a personal level, it's a chance to pick up where he left off, be it eight months later. In the big picture, it is the debut of a new attitude for the Suns and the Washington Nationals organization.

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"I'm excited," the right-hander said during Tuesday's media day at Municipal Stadium. "I got to start the last game of last year and left on a good note. Now I come back to start the first game of a new season with a young staff. I get to go out and set the tone."

Mandel finds himself as one of the opening-day cornerstones for the Suns, who come to town with a mixed roster of young and experienced players, including seven returnees from last season and three top-of-the-line prospects.

"We have taken pride in excelling in our development," Mandel said. "This is a group that has come in and said, 'Hey, get here early and work your butt off and get ready to go.' It's a young group, but enthusiastic."

The catalyst of it all is new manager Darnell Coles, who has laid out a game plan to get the Suns on track for a successful and exciting season, while setting a track of development to help the players get up the organizational ladder.

Mandel is one of those players ready to grab on the first rung. After finishing 4-7 with a 6.71 ERA in 14 games with the Suns last season, he worked with Hagerstown pitching coach Paul Menhart, whom Mandel calls his "godfather" for all the work to transform his delivery.

"He worked his tail off in instructional camp," Menhart said. "He's an excellent prospect and I see big things for him. The legs are stronger than the arms. I can't tell you how much longer a pitcher can last by just using his legs. You just can't get by on the arm alone."

The development helped, but Mandel got the opening start over the other four starters, including Colton Willems, one of Washington's top picks from the 2006 draft, partially because it was his turn.

"It just worked out that way," Menhart said. "It comes from when he pitched last, plus he pitched here last year. I don't put much stock in opening-day starts. They will all pitch every five days. But, since he was here last year, it might help the younger guys to sit and watch a game before going out there."

Whatever the reason, Mandel is glad to have the opportunity.

"I want to set a tone, but I think it will take a couple of games and the first time through the rotation to see how it all meshes," Mandel said. "We might not do everything right yet, but you can see it all there in the first game."

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